Sound the alarm about whistleblowing
Documentation is the key to doing it the proper way
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By Linda Childers
EDITOR'S NOTE: Linda Childers is a freelance writer.
When Diane McNamara, MS, RN, started working at the Denver Veterans Administration Medical Center 10 years ago, she was shocked to see staff members playing solitaire and shopping online instead of providing patient care.
A seasoned nurse, with more than 30 years of nursing experience at the time, McNamara began documenting her co-workers’ offenses and discussing concerns with her nursing supervisors. Yet, instead of addressing the problem, McNamara was labeled a whistleblower by her superiors and passed over for several promotions.
“I was initially hesitant to speak out because I was new to the unit,” said McNamara, a 24-year Navy veteran. “But as the behavior continued, and I saw several employees going through the medical records of employee veterans and making jokes about their medical issues, I knew I needed to go outside the chain of command.” Although the American Nurses Association’s Code of Ethics requires nurses to advocate for and protect the health, safety and rights of patients, many nurses fear whistleblowing will cost them both personally and professionally, as happened to McNamara.
“It was the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” said McNamara, who eventually took her concerns to the Veterans Administration offices in Washington D.C., after failing to find resolution at her medical center despite meeting with her supervisors on many occasions. In 2013, McNamara filed a lawsuit citing serious staff problems at the medical center. Three years later, in December 2016, McNamara won her case against the VA.
“I feel vindicated,” she said. “It was never about the money, but rather the principle.” McNamara now works at a critical access hospital in Ketchikan, Alaska. As the result of her case, employees at the VA Medical Center now are required to undergo additional training.
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“I feel vindicated. It was never about the money, but rather the principle.”
— Diane McNamara, RN
Before you blow the whistle
Have a Strategy in Place — The ANA reminds nurses that whistleblowing is a serious matter that should not be taken lightly, and should be done only after exhausting other ways to resolve the issue. Nurses, including McNamara, say whistleblowing can take a toll on nurses’ emotional health. Although her co-workers never shunned her, McNamara felt repercussions from administrators. “I worked in a culture where several people believed it was better to suppress issues rather than address them,’ she said. “It was a long battle and there were many sleepless nights and grey hairs before justice prevailed.” Know Your Rights — Castillo said several federal and state laws protect nurses and other healthcare workers from facing backlash from their employers if they report issues that threaten public health or safety, or violate the law. The Occupational Health and Safety Act is a federal law that protects workers against retaliation. Many states also have their own health and safety laws.
For nurses who wants to report what they view as unethical or unlawful conduct in the workplace, Castillo recommends taking the following steps before blowing the whistle. Document Your Concerns — The American Nurses Association recommends all nurses reserve judgment until they have adequate documentation to establish wrongdoing. McNamara kept extensive records of all incidents, dates and correspondence before meeting with her supervisor. Ultimately, she had pages of documents to help build her case. Seek a Second Opinion — “Often nurses will call us and ask if we can help to evaluate a situation and determine if they have a legitimate concern,” Castillo said. In addition to offering an objective perspective on the situation, organizations such as the NNU also can suggest ways for nurses to identify sources of support or resolve the situation through mediation. Advocate for Health and Safety — Even if nurses aren’t part of a union, Castillo said they can join NNU’s Health and Safety campaign, a network of member and non-member nurses and allies committed to advocating for nurse health and safety.
Bonnie Castillo, BSN, RN, associate executive director of National Nurses United, said her organization often receives calls from nurses who are unsure how to report what they perceive as abuses in the workplace.

“The majority of complaints we hear concern unsafe staffing levels in hospitals and situations in which a unit may not be monitoring rigorous safety standards,” Castillo said.
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